Wednesday June 30, 2004

On "Linguist"

A common complaint among linguists is that when we tell people what we do, they often respond with, "How many languages do you speak?"  For examples, check out this, this, and all of these.  I was a geek before I was a linguist, so as a johnnie-come-lately, I don't share this annoyance—mostly because when asked what I do, I usually answer "I'm a graduate student" instead of "I'm a linguist".  In fact, I'd go so far as to say we linguists ought to stop being annoyed by this confusion, because we hijacked the preexisting word linguist.

The OED's definition of linguist includes:

1. a. One who is skilled in the use of languages; one who is master of other tongues besides his own. (Often with adj. indicating the degree or extent of the person's skill.)

b. One who speaks a (specified) language.

2. A student of language; a philologist.

People asking how many languages we speak are thinking of the definition 1a.  It has citations going back to 1591.  Linguists are thinking of definition 2, which has citations going back almost as far, to 1641; however, I find the earlier citations somewhat unconvincing:

1641 WILKINS Mercury iii. (1707) 12 Many of the other [words]..are of such secret Sense, as I think no Linguist can discover. 1695 J. EDWARDS Perfect. Script. 3 Here linguists and philologists may find that which is to be found no where else. 1748 HARTLEY Observ. Man I. iii. §1. 320 A Light in which Grammarians and Linguists alone consider Words. 1817 J. EVANS Excurs. Windsor, etc. 171 And what will be curious to the linguist, here are the Iliad and Odyssey, the very books from which Pope made his translation. 1922 O. JESPERSEN Lang. 64, I think I am in accordance with a growing number of scholars in England and America if I..apply the word ‘linguist’ by itself to the scientific student of language (or of languages).

None of the citations before 1922 is a clear example of the sense "one who studies the phenomenon of language".  In each case, the writer may just as easily have had the earlier "person skilled in languages" or "student of a language" meanings in mind.  Note, for example, that it's "linguists and philologists" and "Grammarians and Linguists", implying that the respective writers do not consider the meaning of linguist to include someone who studies philology or grammar.

Of course, the quotation from Jesperson shows that the term was in use within the field for some time before 1922.  This is supported by the OED citations for linguistics in the sense of "the science of languages", which go back to 1847.  It looks like linguistics came first, and then linguist was derived from it, adding a new technical definition to that word.  This is the source of non-linguists' confusion about the word, and it's our fault.

We obviously need to clear up this confusion, and I believe drastic lexical measures are in order.  The term linguistics isn't ambiguous, so we might get away with keeping it as the name of the field and deriving a new noun meaning "one who studies linguistics".  We could take physics envy to its logical conclusion and call ourselves linguisticists, but that's a bit of a mouthful.  The related form linguistician appears to have been in use from the late 19th century to the mid-20th century.  I'm not sure it gives the right impression, though—unlike the -icist ending, which evokes Science, the -ician ending instead evokes Technology: consider statistician and beautician.  On the other hand, let's not forget about physician and mathematician.  Maybe there's hope for linguistician.

If we really want to make a clean break and avoid confusing people at cocktail parties (and we do, don't we?), the right solution might be to jettison linguistics, derived from workaday Latin, and switch over to the more lofty Greek.  The medical profession has been milking Greek for prestige for decades; maybe they're onto something.  Let's see, linguist comes from lingua, meaning "tongue, language".  Applying a little Google-grease, we find that the equivalent ancient Greek etymon (see, doesn't that sound classier than "word"?) is γλώττα or γλώσσα.  Adding the extremely scientific-sounding -ology suffix, we get either glottology or glossology.  These are both real (although obsolete) words, it turns out, meaning exactly what we want: the science of language.  Which one is better is a tough call.  They are not without flaws: on the one hand, glot- has come to be associated within the field with all the words related to glottis; on the other hand, glossology sounds like it might having something to do with the study of shiny things.  Still, I think it's safe to assume that if someone in our field were to say, "I'm a glossologist", the reply would never be, "Oh, really?  How many languages do you speak."  Problem solved.

For too long, we linguists have been annoyed with non-linguists over a misunderstanding that we created.  The solution is clear: stop referring to ourselves as linguists and our field as linguistics, and switch over to the new, growing, and very fundable field of glossology (or possibly glottology).  True, there'd be a startup cost associated with changing department names, job titles, stationary, business cards, journal names, and so forth, but wouldn't it be worth it?

The decision is yours.

[Update:  Having an old post linked by Language Log is a great incentive to re-read it and fix a few typos.  Oops!]

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I actually like "linguisticist" (though there's some morpho-semantic static with *"linguisticism") and "linguistician" even more (cf. "scientician" on one of those documentaries Troy McClure narrates).

Indeed, "glottologia" is a current alternative for Italian "linguistica" 'linguistics' (e.g. Società Italiana di Glottologia), but *"glottologista" seems not to be interchangeable with "linguista" '(OED def. 2)'. The Germans get around the issue with "Sprachwissenschaft" or "Sprachforschung" 'linguistics' :: "Sprachforscher" 'linguist', which seems more common than the Latinate "Linguistik".

I was actually going to suggest that it be the non-specialists who change! There's "polyglot" already running around in the lexicon for "linguist" '(OED def. 1a)'. Use it!

Or, if it's easier for the specialists, why not "phíloglot"? Since linguistics originally belonged under philology, why not "philóglossy" for our exciting, fast-paced, bling-blingy field?

(By the way, why the two Greek forms? γλῶττα is Clas. Attic for more widespread γλῶσσα.)

Posted by: Angelo at Jun 30, 2004 9:19:38 AM

Philoglot is good. Philoglottics for the discipline? Or linguistic science/scientist. Or polyglot for the other kind. So we could describe Ken Hale as a polyglot linguist.

I can't come at something with unnecessarily doubled affixes, so *lingu-ist-ic-ist, and we're doing effectively the same with a doubled adjective formative giving a new agent in -ic-ian. Why can't statisticians be statists?

Posted by: at Jul 2, 2004 12:51:54 AM

What about "philologist"? It's widely used, isn't it?

Though "polygot philoglot" has a certain je ne sais quoi about it...

Posted by: The Ridger at Apr 25, 2006 11:20:51 AM

three comments:

This reminds me of the question I get (as an anthropologist): "So, where do you dig?" I wonder if there is such a question for every field.

This also reminds me of a story my mother used to tell. She was once at a political meeting, and some sort of sheet was passed around surveying the skills of the people in attendence. One of the questions, was how many languages did you speak fluently, and she happenned to glance at the sheet of the man next to her--who had written something like "125". She thought who was this joker, but it turned out that the man was Morris Swadish (who was interested in comparative philology and dating language splits), so he was a linguist who knew a lot of languages.

The third comment concerns a linguist friend who once remarked that it would be much easier if diffferent languages all had the same lexicon and only differed in terms of there grammer.

Posted by: Daniel Rosenblatt at Sep 30, 2006 9:53:35 AM

We could just chill out and accept that the word linguist has two meanings, and that the sciencey one is much less fun.

Posted by: woodcutter at Dec 4, 2007 10:07:12 PM